New Jersey isn’t known as one of the hot spots for beer in the U.S. States like California, Vermont, Oregon, and Michigan have a reputation for great breweries that New Jersey can’t match… yet. Prior to 2012, the laws that governed alcohol production and distribution in this state created a very high barrier to entry for start-up brewers. In September of that year, a law was enacted to give small breweries a better chance to create a viable business in the state. Since then, the number of breweries in New Jersey has more than doubled.
Listeners who tuned into the latest episode of Learn About Beer know that I recently visited Fort Collins, Colorado, a city with almost twenty breweries. One advantage of having that many breweries in such a small area is that it’s possible to do an impromptu beer trail by just walking from one brewery to another. I walked to New Belgium, then walked from there to O’Dell’s, half a mile away. From there it’s another half-mile to Fort Collins Brewery, or half a mile in the other direction back into town and a small handful of other breweries. That’s an experience that wasn’t available anywhere in New Jersey, until now.
Welcome to Hackettstown
A small town in Warren County in the northwestern part of the state, Hackettstown seems like an odd place for a brewing focal point. It’s far away from all the major population centers like Newark, Jersey City or Trenton, and it doesn’t have the tourism business that a location at the Jersey Shore would bring. It’s near a couple of state parks, and Mars, makers of M&Ms, has its headquarters there, but there’s not much else of note. One year ago as of this writing there were no active breweries in the town. Today there are three: Man Skirt, Jersey Girl and Czig Meister, the makings of a proper brewery trail.
Jersey Girl Brewing Company
Coming from the east, the first stop on the trail is Jersey Girl, on the outskirts of town. Jersey Girl opened earlier this year after having been in the planning stages since 2014. It’s located in what feels like a brand-new industrial park area, and the brewery takes up one whole building. The tasting room has a very modern feel to it; it’s well-lit with lots of polished wood, stone, and some couches to sit on while you sample some of the ten beers they keep on tap. Windows in one wall provide a view of the brewing area, and a door leads to the brewing floor. There’s a second tap station for growler fills and some picnic tables to sit at while you wait for the next tour.
The space is very big. Jersey Girl has a 30-barrel brewhouse with plenty of room to grow. According to our tour guide, it’s the third-largest brewhouse in New Jersey. They’re not currently brewing at capacity but can easily ramp up production as demand requires. One thing I found interesting is that they use well water, which is very hard. To make the water suitable for brewing, they run it through a reverse osmosis procedure to remove the minerals and get it close to pure H2O. Then for certain beer styles they have to actually add minerals back to get the water profile right.
With ten beers flowing, I couldn’t try everything they had. In general all the beers are very well-crafted and there’s enough variety for almost any palette. The Farmstand Series Fruit Salat is a wheat beer with berry tones, as if it was brewed with Crunch Berries or Fruity Pebbles. German Chocolate Cake is a porter that tastes exactly like its name and proves the cake is not a lie. IPA #2 is a classic American IPA, with moderate-to-strong bitterness and a good hop nose. The day I was there there also had a version of it on cask that had been aged in Woodford Reserve barrels. The aging smoothed it out and took some of the hop bite off. It was interesting to sample and compare the two versions.
Man Skirt Brewing Company
When you’re finished at Jersey Girl, head into Hackettstown proper, less than five minutes by car. From this point you can walk. Your next stop is Man Skirt Brewing on Main Street. The oldest of the three Hackettstown breweries, Man Skirt opened in the fall of 2015. It’s housed in a building that used to be a bank, so it has a high, vaulted ceiling and big windows that let in a lot of light. The name “Man Skirt” refers to the kilts that owner Joe wears at all times around the brewery. The brewing equipment is right in the room, and there’s a self-guided tour that explains the brewing process step-by-step.
Man Skirt seems to specialize mostly in easy-drinking beers with light-to-moderate alcohol. For example Better Than Pants is a 4% ABV English Bitter, the original “session” beer. I quite enjoy this style but you don’t see it made by many American craft brewers. Also on tap the day I was there was a double IPA called Imperial Progress. This beer was so interesting, I actually talked briefly to Joe about it. It’s brewed more in the English style than American, but the first thing I got in the taste was mango, and maybe a hint of pineapple. Normally this would mean it was brewed with new-world hops like Mosaic or Azacca, but according to Joe he only used Progress, a traditional English hop. The beer has a tremendous amount of flavor for that.
And the Let There Be Rauch is a (duh) rauchbier (a German style made in part with smoked malts) that tastes like bacon. I’m not kidding.
Czig Meister Brewing Company
One block west of Man Skirt is the newest brewery, Czig (pronounced “sig”) Meister, which opened a few weeks ago. The brewery is built in an old red-brick auto garage, and is in my opinion the best physical space of the three breweries. It may be the best I’ve been to in New Jersey. It’s designed around the idea of the tasting room as a social space. It’s very open, and there are numerous community tables to sit at and enjoy the beer with your fellow enthusiasts.
Outside there’s a patio, several more tables with umbrellas, and even a few Adirondack chairs to relax in. It feels like the kind of place where you could go hang out for hours. The breweries I visited in Fort Collins, like New Belgium, O’Dell’s and Equinox, were all like this.
The counter at Czig Meister is large and spacious, and banners adorned with the name of the brewery and their various beers hang from the walls. That’s a nice touch.
It’s illegal to serve food at a brewery in New Jersey, but Czig Meister compensates for that by having a station with the menus from all the restaurants in town that deliver, and you are encouraged to order into the brewery.
Czig Meister’s slogan is “Master Your Craft,” and that describes their brewing philosophy. It may have only just opened, but the owner and head brewer, Matt Czigler, has extensive experience, including a stint as head brewer at Kane Brewing, considered one of the top breweries in the state. There were five beers on tap, none of which were particularly fancy but all were of the highest quality. The first beer I tried was the Huntsman Kölsch, which was absolutely spot-on. I admit that Kölschbier is one of my favorite styles, especially on a hot summer day, but this was delicious. It was the kind of beer that you want to just keep on drinking. The pale ale and oatmeal stout were much the same, just perfectly dialed-in to the style. Even the amber ale, a style that I usually find boring, was good enough to make me take notice.
If you’re hungry when you’ve finished the trail, walk to one of Hackettstown’s fine restaurants for dinner. All of the breweries sell growlers to go, so you can take your favorite with you and enjoy it with a meal. We went to the Pandan Room, a Thai/Indonesian restaurant I found with a quick web search. It was excellent.